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Gates Police Suspends Use of Strong Memorial’s Psych ED Over Issue of Discharge Planning

Patti Singer

Gates Police Officer Shawn O’Mara at a news conference Oct. 19, 2020 called on the state to make changes in mental hygiene arrests. Chief James VanBrederode is at left. Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group

With the spotlight on law enforcement’s response to people in mental health distress, the Gates Police Department announced a change in protocol.

For the time being, the department is not routinely taking individuals arrested under mental hygiene law to Strong Memorial Hospital. Patients can request Strong, but otherwise they will be taken to Rochester Regional Health.

Chief James VanBrederode announced the change on Oct. 19 over what he called a lack of discharge planning that ensures safety of the individual and the community.

VanBrederode cited three instances since July when officers arrested individuals under the state’s mental hygiene law and took them to Strong.

In each case, the individual damaged property, displayed weapons and/or appeared to threaten others. Two cases happened the week of Oct. 12.

Each time, the person had been released from Strong. In at least one case, Gates Police had asked to be notified when the individual was being released but VanBrederode said that did not happen. In other cases, he said it appeared there was no plan for the individual once the person left.

“A question a lot of us have is how does this happen,” he said at a news conference. “Is there any follow up, is anyone monitoring this individual?”

Under mental hygiene law, police can take somebody into custody against their will if they are a threat to themselves or others or intoxicated to the point where they can’t take care of themselves.

The state Office of Mental Health has criteria for admitting patients under mental hygiene law. But in some cases, a person can refuse treatment and leave after being evaluated by a credentialed clinician.

The University of Rochester Medical Center and Rochester Regional Health responded with a joint statement:

“Leaders from URMC and the Monroe County Office of Mental Health met with Chief VanBrederode (Oct. 16) to discuss his concerns. It is challenging for all of us that people suffering substance abuse disorders and mental health challenges are often able to refuse care that could help them. However, all hospitals and EDs in New York must follow the state’s mental hygiene law and criteria for inpatient psychiatric admissions, which prevent facilities from keeping patients involuntarily unless certain medical criteria are met.

“We all want to improve the way our community cares for people suffering from mental health and substance abuse issues, which is why the county has formed a task force to improve the way law enforcement and health providers can work together to support people in crisis. These are community challenges that require community solutions, and it is not accurate to suggest that taking patients to one hospital over another will result in better outcomes for the families we all serve.”

VanBrederode said coordination between hospitals and police when individuals are released after a mental hygiene arrest has been a problem for years but no longer can be what he called business as usual. He said that even with privacy laws, there should be a comprehensive, holistic and standardized discharge policy that informs family and police.

Incidents such as the death of Daniel Prude and other cases around the country where people in distress have encountered police have brought new discussion to the role of law enforcement in situations involving mental health and substance use. Prude was seen at Strong. The Joint Commission, which accredits hospitals, recently would not comment on the status of its review of hospital procedures.

The three cases VanBrederode cited involved suspected drug or alcohol use in addition to emotional distress.

Because the individuals damaged property or showed weapons, they faced criminal charges. VanBrederode said that under bail reform, they were released and not able to take advantage of substance use and mental health programs offered in the Monroe County Jail.

Through Oct. 19, Gates Police made 311 mental hygiene arrests. Last year, they had a total of 315.

VanBrederode said he is suspending transports to Strong to safeguard his officers and the community.

He said Gates Police used to bring individuals on a mental hygiene arrest to Unity Hospital prior to the merger with Rochester General. He said he did not know exactly how Rochester General would handle the cases.

“I can tell you want doesn’t work, and what doesn’t work is going to Elmwood Avenue,” he said. “Let’s hope Rochester Regional has better discharge planning in place and is more prepared to deal with this.”

He praised other services at Strong and said the issue is with psychiatry.

From Oct. 16, when Gates changed the policy, to Oct. 20, the police department has taken seven people under mental hygiene law to Rochester General Hospital.

VanBrederode is president of the Monroe County Chiefs Association, but he said in this case he was speaking only for his department. Ogden Chief Chris Mears attended the news conference but did not comment. No other departments have announced a change in protocols for mental hygiene arrests.

Shawn O’Mara, president of the Keystone Club, which represents Gates police officers, called on the state to address law enforcement concerns.

“We need to change the system,” he said at the news conference, inviting state officials on ride-alongs. “The number one concern is safety of the community. The state needs to recognize there’s a problem … and sit with us and think how can we change it so everybody is handled properly.”